For Colored Folks Who Have Considered Peace Corps

I am a Black girl and I am serving in the US Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer in Peru. I have always identified strongly with my blackness as my experiences with race have shaped my life greatly. As an undergrad, I chose to pursue a degree in African American Studies at Temple University because how can one understand America without understanding the people who helped build it? And although I feel I received a great public school education and history was always my favorite subject, I remember counting only about 20-30 pages about African Americans and their contributions to this country in my American history text book and I felt I needed more.

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Me Repping With My Temple University African American Studies Department T-Shirt in Lima

It is safe to say that I am acutely aware of the way race shapes the world. Sure, you can say race has no scientific basis and that it’s a social construct but that doesn’t make it any less real. As a result, I am hyper aware of my blackness because I have no choice but to be. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a highly racialized society and the problems that arise from this are deeply entangled in our past and present – and I am positive they’ll find their way into our future too.

This hyper awareness has not changed since joining the Peace Corps because it is a primarily white space (in terms of volunteers) and often times, I can’t help but feel my otherness. So in honor of Black History Month, I decided I wanted to focus my posts on my experiences as a Black (or African American – I use them interchangeably) volunteer. The point of these posts is not to speak for all Black volunteers, because we all have different experiences and for me to try and channel Al Sharpton and speak for an entire race would be unfair. I am simply one Black volunteer trying to tell her own story in hopes that it will help current and prospective volunteers with a little more insight – tis all.

Anyway, sorry for the lengthy intro but here are some very, very basics for colored folks who have considered Peace Corps:

1. There Ain’t A Lot of Us

We’re certainly not rolling squad deep here, my friends. Out of about 38 in my training
group, Peru 26, there are only 5 African American volunteers including myself. And that is a healthy amount compared to training groups passed. I can’t be sure how many of us there are currently serving in Peru, however I do know this – Out of more or less

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Peru 26 training group

200 volunteers in this country, I only know of about 11 other African American volunteers and most of them are women.  And because your experiences in country may vary because of your skin color, it’s only natural to want to talk to someone who is going through what you’re going through too. Sometimes these people are not your white counterparts. I found it comforting at times to seek out and talk to other Black volunteers about what I was feeling whether that be about an experience I had with HCNs (Host Country Nationals in PC lingo) or other with other volunteers. Now I’m definitely not saying to purposely self segregate – I’m simply acknowledging the value of finding and giving support to other African American Volunteers. And speaking of other volunteers…

 2. Fellow Volunteers Can Offend Too

Yes, at least in my experience, volunteers are good people with good intentions. But does that mean they are free from ignorance or prejudices? No – none of us are. Does this mean that you won’t hear or be told ignorant things that make you cringe? No, you probably will hear them.

For example, on days where you’re learning about diversity (especially when that diversity means racial diversity) you might hear things like, “More diversity talk? This doesn’t apply to me.” Boy, that’s one that really gets me for 2 reasons. The first being this: It applies to everyone – black, white, purple, pink it doesn’t matter. Just because you have had the privilege of ignoring how race affects this world doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to you.

What are you going to do if a HCN calls your Black site mate or volunteer friend an “ugly African” in your presence? Are you going  to appropriately correct them and talk about why that is offensive or are you going to sit there and say, “Oh. Doesn’t apply to me.” As

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Hey, look! The U.S. Ambassador to Peru is African American too – I think that’s pretty awesome.

volunteers we all have a role to play and that includes teaching HCNs about our own country. If you don’t try to understand how race affects your volunteer counterparts, how can you face these situations and still take your de facto role as an ambassador of the U.S. seriously?  The second reason it grinds my gears is because you usually won’t hear, “This doesn’t apply to me,” from those same non-racial minority heterosexual volunteers when the diversity training revolves around LGBTQ issues. In my experience, most people have an easier time committing to be an ally for the LGBTQ community of volunteers (which is awesome too) but are quick to dismiss and be uninterested when we start talking about how race can affect a volunteer’s service.

You might hear these kind of comments and much more (I know I have!) but I believe that one of the great things about PCVs is that in a way, they all came here to learn something. They may not have expected to learn about race and diversity in their own country but if they truly came with a willingness to understand other people, why should that not apply to their fellow Americans and volunteers? So if you feel comfortable enough, I think turning an ignorant comment into a learning opportunity is a great way to approach the situation.

3. Peace Corps Seems to Be Trying

 It can be frustrating at times to go through training and feel like a lot of the information given about the volunteer experience is based off the white volunteer experience. In 10679551_10100277109876903_6033628447513089537_oa way, I understand this because like I said, the vast majority of volunteers are white and they can’t tailor every little detail. But from what I can tell, Peace Corps HQ and Peace Corps Peru seem to be trying. I remember last year for Black History Month, PC HQ had a Twitter chat about serving as an African American Volunteer which, as an applicant, I really thought was pretty great. I also know that this year, they will be hosting a web chat with a panel of Black RPCVs to share their experiences. Seriously, that’s the bees knees right there! These are exactly the type of things I actively sought out as an applicant. Although, I do think that these types of panels and Twitter chats should continue to be held outside of Black History Month as well (what if I’m a African American applicant applying in April for an October departure date – I miss that window in February) I definitely think that this is an excellent step in the right direction.

As for Peace Corps Peru, we have what is called DTF (hehe, haha I know) and it stands for Diversity Task Force. It is a group of volunteers with a staff liaison who work to support and address issues regarding the diversity of volunteers. And although DTF certainly does not only focus on racial diversity, they still are a great resource. During training, they were able to put together a panel where trainees could anonymously ask questions. We also had the opportunity to talk to a current PC staff member & RPCV about how her being a Black woman affected her service in Paraguay. And lastly, our training staff brought in two 10945810_10100277110345963_1720924763805477324_oAfrican American embassy workers (one man, one woman) to talk about their experiences being Black in Peru.

There have been so many times where I felt like my experience a Black person has been ignored, forgotten, or breezed over – like in my high school American history text book. And even though I’m sure I’ll continue to experience that over and over again, it is a very comforting feeling to know that at least PC HQ and PC Peru recognize that there is a need and value in having discussions and trainings about how race can shape a volunteer experience. And in a country where we love sweeping our racially charged dirt under the rug and acting like we didn’t put it there, this recognition is welcomed and refreshing.

PHEW. Now, that I’ve wiped the sweat off my brow and stepped down from the soap box, below I’ve listed links to things that might be helpful for prospective African American volunteers – I hope this helps someone.

More Perspectives: Articles

My Narrative as an Afro Latina Peace Corps Volunteer

To be young, gifted, and Black in the Peace Corps

“Say It Loud…” Black in the Peace Corps

We Must Diversify Ourselves 

Black PCVs Share How the Experiences Changes Lives and Perception of Living Overseas

More Perspectives: Videos

Viewpoints: The African American/Black Volunteer Experience

RPCV Shares Experiences as an African American Serving in Africa

Explore the Work of African American in the Peace Corps Since the 1960s

More Perspectives: Websites

Black Peace Corps Volunteer (BPCV) Facebook

African American Woman AMA on Reddit

 

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. Katey-Red says:

    Brittany,

    Well said! Even though this post was geared for black prospective PCVs, I learned how to better ally with black PCVs at my posts as a white PCV by reading this. South Africa is an intense racial dynamic (like it or not everything involves race in this post-conflict society), and your thoughts reflect what black PCVs say here. I also appreciate how you pointed out that other PCVs unintentionally add to oppression. I cannot fully understand the experiences of black PCVs, yet I experience a different form of diversity as an autistic PCV and definitely relate to insensitive comments from the PC community. Good on you for creating these remarks into teachable moments!

    I agree that PC is trying to better support all forms of diversity. PCVs who share their diverse perspectives help continue the conversation and provide concrete areas of improvement. Thank you for supporting the discussion and describing your experiences candidly.

    All the best from South Africa,
    Katey

    PS: I am currently in the middle of “Lies My History Teacher Told Me” where they discuss the abysmal dearth of black perspectives in history textbooks. We need way more than 30 pages for black contributions (let alone all diverse perspectives).

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Hi Katey! Thank you for reading and very much appreciate your comments! I actually read on your blog that you are serving as an autistic PCV – and Ill be honest and say that something I hadn’t ever thought of before but I thank you for sharing your experiences as well because I really did learn something new. Its really all so valuable!

      Like

  2. As always great job!!!! So proud of you!!!!!!!

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Thanks dad!

      Like

  3. Nicole says:

    Brittany,

    As a potential black PCV, I’ve also been scouring the internet for any black PCV and RPCV voices. I appreciate your input on this and for sharing your story. I look forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. bdwhite says:

      Oh good! I’m glad you were able to find this!!! Good luck finding more and with your application!

      Like

  4. Julie says:

    Hey Brittany!

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Honestly, it’s really comforting knowing that as a fellow WOC PCV, I can relate to every one of these points you talked about.

    Keep on being amazing!

    x Julie

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Hey Julie!
      Thanks a lot! You know before I came to Peru I remember reading and voting for your blog in the Blog It Home contest because I really liked the fact that your perspective was from another WOC volunteer. I wrote this mostly referring to African Americans but also knowing that other folks would definitely be able to relate as well! I think its important we all share our stories and create an open community where its safe to share these touchy experiences.

      You keep being awesome too 🙂

      Like

  5. Mo says:

    But BW, what can we, your followers both in the U.S. and abroad, do to effect change? Because, seriously? I want more fabulous people like you representing and creating change for the U.S. Who do we poke to get more visibility for persons of color as PCVs? You know me, I’m a sh*t disturber; willing to smack the hornets nest whenever I feel the need! So, really, who do I poke?

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Thats a great question and you know no one has ever asked me that before. I think what you can do a lot, especially as a teacher in Rochester. I think just talking about with kids can help. I know I first looked into years ago because of professor happened to mention it. And I remember thinking feeling like it had never even occurred to me that this is something I should look into. And not just Peace Corps but other national service programs like AmeriCorps as well. Although I had briefly looked into Peace Corps before my AmeriCorps service, I think what really pushed me to apply was my time in AmeriCorps because then you’re in a culture where people are actively promoting the benefits and importance of national service. I applied to AmeriCorps also because someone had mentioned it and same thing – it was just something that had never occurred to me prior. AmeriCorps is cool to promote for you too because for some programs (like my program City Year) you can do it straight out of high school and use your education award to relieve some of the cost of college if you choose to pursue an undergrad degree afterwards. I think by showing kids that its something completely attainable and that there are people who do it who look like them. I know that PC encourages volunteers who are on vacation at home to find a classroom and talk about their PC experience. I definitely plan to come home one of these days and I would totally be up to speaking to a class or two at World of Inquiry about my experience in PC and AmeriCorps. In terms of who you can poke – I know there is a diversity office at PC HQ now has an office of Diversity and Inclusion. I tried to find contact info but couldnt but I’m sure you could just call up HQ and ask to be connected. You could also contact the regional recruitment office. I looked really quick and found that the recruiter for Western NY is a woman named Ann Tatarsky and her email is atatarsky@peacecorps.gov

      Liked by 1 person

  6. vanessa says:

    You’re awesome. Perfect start to BHM. This message was spot on

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Thank you, Vava! Love and miss you mucho!

      Like

    2. Mo says:

      Brittany,
      Thank you for the time and effort you put into your response to me. I take all of this quite seriously, as you know. And I welcome any tools that I may garner to help my students. I will reach out to the WNY recruiter as you indicated and see what that brings me. But, as I was reading, I thought about a Skype date with some of our Seniors to maybe ‘plant the seed” with them. Is there a connection that is Skype-worthy in your town? And would you be amenable to speaking with some HS students?
      All my best,
      MM

      Like

      1. bdwhite says:

        No problem!
        And I would love to talk with the seniors via Skype! Most times, my signal can video chat but some days it acts funny or its slow. I’d say the video chat works 85% of the time without problems. Definitely would be worth a try!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mo says:

        I just talked with Sheelarani (our principal) and she is 100% behind the idea. She has her own 2 cents about financial difficulties driving the dearth of POC as PCV. I’m not sure that I agree but she welcomes the opportunity for our Seniors to meet and converse with you. When you’re sowing seed for the first time you cannot predict the results with surety! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. bdwhite says:

        Hmmm not sure I agree either but that’s okay. Just let me know when you have a date you’re looking at – my schedule is pretty flexible!

        Like

  7. Nykki says:

    This is just what zi needed to hear. I submitted my application on Saturday and I have been pretty nervous about my odds, but even more so about how my race will affect my experience. I het stressed just trying to think through how I would manage my own hair for the first time in my life! Anyhow, it’s great to hear your perspective. I am excited to go through the links you provided! Thanks again!

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Hi Nykki! Im so glad that you found this post helpful – it is exactly what I had hoped it would do! As for hair, girl get your practice time in now! I was never really a hair salon girl and had always done my own hair before coming here so I didn’t have to make that transition but I will say wherever you go make sure you pack enough hair products to at least get you through training. Then have someone send you more periodically in care packages! Have fun rummaging through the links!!

      Like

  8. Ana says:

    Thank you for this! I am AA WOC and I just submitted my application last night and this was needed. I was also researching before I applied about what is it like being Black in the PC and to be honest it’s not too much information. I did want to add another link for you, her name is Ashley and she recently came back from serving in Ethiopia. This girl talked about everything; dating life, hair maintenance, being Black in Ethiopia, etc. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYYcx_YUhvlGmzVYm2QSZpA

    Like

    1. bdwhite says:

      Hi Ana! Thank you for this Ana I really appreciate it. And thank you for the link Illl make sure to put it on the page. Good luck on your application and I wish all the best for you!

      Like

  9. I am so glad I stumbled across your page. I am get ready to swear in as a CED volunteer in neighboring Colombia, so I look forward to following your page.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. bdwhite says:

      Thak you so much! Good luck in Colombia I heard its beautiful (Hoping to be able to visit one day!)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. If you are able to make it, please let me know! I would be honored to host you.

    Like

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